Get the Knack
Released: June 1979
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 40
Certified Platinum: 8/3/79
The great flaw in the éclair of power pop is its gooey center; a sugary good nature that quickly spoils your appetite for this dessert of a rock genre. The guitars may be crashing out feverishly peppy riffs, the drums may be bashing tough little beats that hit you below the belt, but most power-pop bands seem to be fronted by some toothy pretty-boy who wants only to chirp about his keen girl or his keen car or the keen time he and and his buddies had on Saturday night.
The Knack shoots fresh custard into the center of the power-pop éclair by being unrelievedly cynical about all the junk-food topics that fill out their debut album, Get the Knack. These guys are a serenely energetic Los Angeles quartet fronted by lead singer/songwriter Doug Fieger, for whom the sneer is a badge of honor. Fieger's smirk, composed of equal parts contempt and lust, permeates his vocals and tunes. Under his guidance, Get the Knack is a trip through the dark side of adolescence, a trip so dizzying that the group's speed and force nauseate as well as exhilarate.
For the Knack, unadorned drumbeats and a couple of curt, loud guitar riffs are all-important. Drummer Bruce Gary, lead guitarist Berton Averre and bassist Prescott Niles provide beats and riffs in abundance, while producer Mike Chapman follows closely behind, cleaning and polishing the rubble they leave in their wake. Other self-conscious power-pop bands have tried for a simply re-recorded, stripped-down sound (e.g., the Flamin' Groovies, Dave Edmunds' Rockpile), but these outfits sound almost rococo in comparison to the Knack's steely barrage of precise playing.
Infusing all the smart primitivism, however, are Doug Fieger's elastic whine and appallingly bald opinions. Legions of jaunty rockers have uttered repressed moans for their girlfriends, but Fieger comes right out and salivates with the drool of a witty satyr: "She's your adolescent dream/Schoolboy stuff, sticky-sweet romance/And she makes you wanna scream/Wishin' you could get inside her pants."
That's from "Good Girls Don't," just one in a series of songs addressed to young women whom the singer wants to know only in a carnal sense. Fetid ideas like Fieger's are usually the stuff of panting heavy-metal bands, and easily ignored in the blare. But by couching his rampaging id in the locutions of classical pop rock, Fieger makes his callousness inescapable: he practically rubs your face in it.
I've seen the Knack play a number of times, and it's all I can do to look at Fieger. His rancid grin pushes a shudder up my back. I'm thankful for the existence of a Get the Knack because it transmutes his protean nastiness into merely dirty intensity. Did I say merely? Dirty intensity in power pop this clean and arousing is amazing.
- Ken Tucker, Rolling Stone, 8-9-79.
Theoretically, the Knack's debut album should have me turning handsprings: short, concise pop tunes cut from Sixties English cloth (hooks, teen romance, background harmonies, jangly guitars), all recorded as pristinely -- that is, live in the studio with minimal overdubbing -- as the material requires. What's more, I've seen these guys in person and they're utterly charming. So how come this record not only bores me to tears, but actually offends me in places?
Well, it's not because they're revivalists. Recycling valuable elements of the past, even if it's not a particularly distant past, doesn't bother me as long as it's done with some panache. But the Knack gets on my nerves, and at least part of the reason is that these guys refuse to play the game by the rules: they're much too knowing to come off as innocently as the genre requires. Oh sure, the Sixties groups that invented this kind of melodrama were knowing too (when the Beatles sang about wanting to hold your hand it's quite clear, in retrospect, that they had other areas of the body in mind), but at least they faked it convincingly. The Knack doesn't have the knack. Can you imagine, say, the Beach Boys crooning (as the Knack does in "Good Girls Don't") a phrase like "sit on my face"?
Worse, the Knack also lacks the angelic singing and addictive tunes that are crucial in pulling off this kind of song. Their songs make all the right structural moves, to be sure, but they have no melodies to speak of, and their vocals are absolutely characterless. They may ooh and aah like Lennon and McCartney, but the sad fact is that they have as little personality as Donny and Marie. This, I think, is where the live show proved deceptive: on stage, they were so energetic that it obscured any serious evaluation of what they were actually doing.
To tell the truth, I feel a bit like a traitor coming down so hard on this band, because anybody playing rock-and-roll for kids, and then trying to get that rock-and-roll on the radio, deserves encouragement in the face of the disco steamroller. And in that sense the Knack may turn out to be worth something after all; they may encourage other people to try the same sort of thing.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 9/79.
- Billboard, 1979.
Cognoscenti I know tend to couch their belief that this is the Anti-clash in purely technical terms -- harmonies treacly, production punched up, and so forth. Bullshit. I too find them unattractive; if they felt this way about girls when they were unknowns, I shudder to think how they're reacting to groupies. But if they're less engaging musically than, say, the Scruffs, they have a lot more pop and power going for them than, say, the Real Kids. In other words, "My Sharona" is pretty good radio fare and let's hope "She's So Selfish" isn't the next single. Face it, this is a nasty time, and if the Stranglers are (or were, I hope) Sgt. Barry Sadler, these guys are only Freddie and the Dreamers. Docked a notch for clothes sense. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The band attempted to update The Beatles sound for the new wave era on their debut. A good idea that was well executed, but critics cried "foul" when millions sold after Capitol's pre-release hype (it went gold in 13 days and eventually sold five million copies, making it one of the most successful debuts in history). Get the Knack is at once sleazy, sexist, hook-filled and endlessly catchy -- above all, it's a guilty pleasure and an exercise in simple fun. When is power-pop legitimate anyway? Includes the unforgettable hits "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't." * * * *
- Chris Woodstra, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Get the Knack is a must in any pop fan's collection -- albeit from a decidedly male and teenage perspective. It has "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't," but even the ballads -- "Your Number or Your Name" and "Maybe Tonight" -- are standouts. * * * *
- John Nieman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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